The need for Libraries Day
The Malta Libraries Council (MLC) is holding Libraries Day today. This special observance is being celebrated in a number of libraries across Malta with activities and extended opening hours (see www.mlc.org.mt for more details). The main objective is to raise awareness about the roles that various libraries have in today’s society.
Some claim we do not really need libraries now that we have the internet. Let me make it clear that I, and anyone working as a library and information professional, cannot by any means be against technology and all the benefits that the internet and other electronic resources have brought about. It has made our profession infinitely more interesting and diverse and it has also changed the way libraries across the world work and offer their services. I do, however, believe that libraries continue to have a very important role to play in today’s society. If anything, with the use of technology, their role has been redefined and this has allowed them to raise their profile.
The Malta Libraries Council feels that Libraries Day is an opportunity to emphasise the important role of the various types of libraries to different sections of our society. Apart from the National Library, which is primarily entrusted with the role of collecting and making accessible our published national heritage, there are two important networks of libraries that we need to sustain, empower and render more accessible to their users. These are school libraries and public libraries.
The role of school libraries is more or less well defined by the IFLA/Unesco School Library Manifesto which states: “The school library provides information and ideas that are fundamental to functioning successfully in today’s information and knowledge-based society. The school library equips students with life-long learning skills and develops the imagination, enabling them to live as responsible citizens.” Educators and parents could do worse than encourage their children to visit their school libraries more often without making it sound like a chore.
Public libraries have a wider audience to serve all age groups. We have a network of over 60 public libraries and there is no doubt it could be better utilised by the public. I would therefore like to encourage everyone to pay a visit to the public library in their locality and become a member of the network as a way of creatively utilising their leisure and further enriching their minds.
Academic libraries also have a significant role to play. They are there to offer access to information and learning resources to their users, i.e. students, their lecturers and others engaged in research. Incredibly, I have come across students who confess to never having made use of their academic libraries. This points to the need to raise awareness and is not meant to denigrate in any way our academic libraries which, despite their limited resources, are clearly the best equipped libraries. The final category is often overlooked but nevertheless important. Special libraries encompass a wide variety of libraries including private, religious, government and corporate. We have not given enough importance to these libraries over the years and some institutions have even deemed it expedient to close down their libraries for whatever reason. A short-sighted viewpoint, to say the least.
It is hoped that Libraries Day also serves to raise awareness among the powers that be and make them realise that investing in libraries gives both a tangible and intangible return on investment. It is an open secret that the Malta Libraries (the former Department of Libraries) has been underfunded and understaffed for decades.
The Malta Libraries Council pointed this out in its first annual report and made it clear the newly formed entity replacing the old government department cannot fulfil its role unless a concerted effort is made by the authorities to ensure that it is both adequately funded as well as adequately staffed and resourced.
It is commendable that the Government has been investing in education in recent years. As I have read repeatedly in the media, €1.5 million is being spent on education daily and €23 million has been allocated for stipends this year. I have no qualms about that. What I would like to see is libraries taking a slightly bigger slice of the cake. This would hopefully allow school libraries to have a dedicated budget and be further integrated in the curriculum, academic libraries to get more funds and the Malta Libraries to be sustained by a bigger budget.
The message to the authorities is clear: Unless you invest in libraries, they cannot fulfil their new and emerging roles.
And this brings me to my last focus – ourselves – the people working in libraries. The MLC is fully aware of the challenges that library and information professionals and paraprofessionals face on a daily basis. The general perception of the public is that library staff spend their days stamping books and re-shelving, and in some instances these perceptions are justified. All persons working in all types of libraries should understand the new emerging roles of libraries as gateways to knowledge and information, as meeting places and as service-oriented points which provide access to a multitude of informational, educational and recreational tools in various formats.
In his introduction to The Atlas of New Librarianship, R. David Lankes states that his book “seeks to show the way forward for librarians in a time of great challenge, change and opportunity”.
It is really up to us to grasp the opportunity by making our voices heard, by engaging in continuing education, by learning from best practices and by challenging the status quo.
Robert Mizzi is chairman of the Malta Libraries Council.